Review: CBS offers 2 comedies of upsetting proximity
CBS has two sitcoms to put on your New CBS Sitcom list. Each concerns what happens when a person or persons move next to or in with some different, dissimilar persons. (In each case, one party is black and the other white, though race is only a subject in one show.) Each coincidentally stars someone who used to be on Fox’s “New Girl.”
And apart from the lately departed “Superior Donuts,” in which Jermaine Fowler co-starred with Judd Hirsch, they are the first CBS situation comedies with black leads to premiere in more than 20 years, after the short-lived “The Gregory Hines Show” in 1997 and the longer-lived “Cosby,” which ran from 1996 to 2000. Make of that what you will.
A place to hide
In the weightless “Happy Together,” which does use the old Turtles song as a theme, Damon Wayans Jr. (our “New Girl” alumni) and Amber Stevens West play Jake and Claire, a couple in their early 30s who take in a hot Australian pop star named Connor (Felix Mallard) when a tabloid breakup sends him looking for a place to hide. (Jake is his accountant.)
Although it is based on the real-life experience of executive producer Ben Winston, in whose attic One Direction singer Harry Styles (since gone solo, also an executive producer) lived for 18 months, it’s a familiar king-among-commoners theme. It also resembles, in different ways, both “Bye Bye Birdie” and “Alf.”
The main effect of Cooper’s presence is to make Jake and Claire feel old and to proclaim that they are not (“We’re young and fun and full of beans”), though they have settled into a comfortable couch-bound, binge-watching, snack-eating Saturday night groove.
Jake: “We are living with a world-famous rock star. We cannot let him see us go to sleep at ... 9:25.”
Claire: “Well, it can’t be worse than the time he saw us high five over a coupon.”
Jake, especially, is concerned with looking cool to Cooper, which he does not accomplish by saying weird things in funny voices (saying things in funny voices is a bit of Wayans Jr. thing), mentioning repeatedly that his nickname in college was Dr. Dunk (“It’s a life title”) and compulsively referring to Cooper by nicknames like “Cooper Gooding Jr.” and “Cooper Noodles.”
Cooper, for his part, likes that Jake is “an ordinary guy, living an ordinary life in a totally ordinary place.”
Nothing particularly interesting is done with the premise; Jake and Claire go out clubbing with Cooper and it destroys them; in another, Cooper puts them on a pop star health regimen; in another, his lack of possessions inspires them to try to de-clutter their lives. Though he sometimes gets a funny line (“I’m sorry, guys. If I’d known the lyrics to ‘Shake Your Booty, Yeah Yeah’ would cause so much pain, I never would have written them”), he is essentially a straight man, a catalytic agent. But Wayans and West develop an increasingly comfortable rapport as the episodes go on, and West is enjoyable all the way through, funny without breathing hard.
Makes political points
“The Neighborhood” is more substantial -- there are more characters in it, anyway, and a splendid set representing the facade and yards of two side-by-side Southern California Craftsman bungalows that feels less like a multi-camera sitcom than legitimate theater. (The interior details are right too.) It has political points, about diversity and unity, preservation and gentrification, which are simultaneously emphasized and danced around. Stripped to its essentials, it’s a familiar sort of comedy about a person who would like to be left alone and the person who won’t leave him alone.
Max Greenfield (“New Girl,” there it is) plays Midwest-friendly Dave Johnson, a professional conflict mediator moving his family from a small town in Michigan into a predominantly black neighborhood in Pasadena; his wife, Gemma (Beth Behrs), has a job running a progressive school nearby. (They are also packing a young son, Grover, played by Hank Greenspan.)
Their soon-to-be-neighbor Calvin Butler (Cedric the Entertainer), meanwhile, associating the name Johnson with Magic and Dwyane, has been happily expecting “another successful black family moving into that nice house” next door. His awakening is rude; awakening, he is rude too.
“You let one family like that move in,” Calvin declares, “and the next thing you know, it’s going to be a bunch of dudes jogging around in their little short shorts walking their vegan Labradoodles.” (There will be shorts.)
Having barely unpacked, Dave wants to give Calvin a key to his house, because “What if there’s an emergency or you want to borrow something and we’re not home or it’s my birthday and you want to surprise me with a surprise birthday party?” (“Like I’m going to help him in an emergency,” sniffs Calvin, who meets Dave’s warmth with wariness: “There are two types of racists; there’s ones who hate black people, and ones who love black people.”)
In some ways, Greenfield is playing a less intense if no less needy version of Schmidt, his manic “New Girl” character (a more intense version of Schmidt can scarcely be imagined). Indeed, there are times when the show itself comes on to the audience in the way that Dave leans in on Calvin, forcing an intimacy it hasn’t earned yet. (As a professional mediator, he is peculiarly bad at reading people and also given to sulks; this is possibly meant to be ironic, or it might just be a case of consistency sacrificed on the altar of comedy.)
If Dave can seem too weird to be true, the Butler family represents a dynamic so familiar to situation comedy as to seem practically real. Cedric the Entertainer easily plays the part of grumbling patriarch, with solid work from Sheaun McKinney as his unemployed older son, Malcolm, who lives at home; Marcel Spears as younger son Marty, who has a job and an apartment but is always around the house, because that’s where the show takes place; and Tichina Arnold as Calvin’s well-centered wife, Tina. This is not the first comedy in which sensible wives bond while excitable husbands clash, and it will not be the last.
The premise is a flip, of course, on the old cry of the Racist White Homeowner, “There goes the neighborhood,” unleashing jokes and a speech or two about how black people are and white people are and how they see each other. (In fact, these are issues that have concerned the actual gentrifying, house-flipping neighborhood where the show is set.) But this is also a TV neighborhood, where the “community” for all intents and purposes extends no farther than the people next door -- not even the people next door on the other side.
This may change: In the fourth episode, Calvin visits a local bar, where he laments to his friend the proprietor that “our community is being chipped away” and that the old barbecue joint and the hardware store have become a coffeehouse and a juice bar; Dave will also get a lesson in real local history that applies to locales all over this land. Of course, he will have something to teach Calvin too, about trust and acceptance. On CBS, everybody gets along, eventually.